Updated: Aug 7, 2022
Lost in Space
One of the first Soviet cosmonauts to orbit Earth exclaimed at a press conference upon his return, “I have circled the planet and looked out into space. I must tell you, I saw neither angels nor God!” One wonders what the relevance of this statement was in terms of the space race.
What it does show, it seems to me, is hubris and silliness—both of which are more than evident some four decades later.
It is hubris or shameful pride to think that any of us, through our technological achievements could somehow either prove or disprove the existence of the God to whom the Bible witnesses. Simple logic alone would lead us to conclude that if the Bible is correct, well, this God would certainly not be known through our prowess. He is bigger than we are and he is not dependent upon our verification by means of our rockets, cleverness or sophisticated reasoning.
But before we dismiss the cosmonaut too quickly, his comments do touch on something. How sure may we be to say we know God? We don’t see him (except in Hollywood films it now seems!) and most people don’t talk about hearing God like we hear our friends speak to us. How can we be sure that we’re not the person lost in space?
Begin in the right place
I admit it. It would be cool to orbit the planet Earth and look farther out into space. The views must be awesome and inspiring. But this would not be the best place to search for the answer to ‘How do we know God?’ It makes more sense to begin not with ourselves but with God, ‘How is God known?’ There is a reason why we begin here and not with ourselves. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians four aspects are evident.
God is known through his own initiative
Scholars are not sure if the Christians in Colossae faced an actual problem with false teaching or whether this letter is responding to a potential problem. Whatever the case, I think 1:282:5 is the key to the letter.
The church here grew out of the gospel ministry of one Epaphras (see 1:7), an associate of Paul. If we believe in Christ do we have all that God has for us? Is there spirituality we must add-on to a trust in Christ? Is there more to know about God than what we know in Jesus Christ? No, insists Paul. In Christ you know God fully. You need not add to him to know God better. And here we see the point: you and I know God through his own initiative in Christ.
The knowledge of God came through Epaphras and through the apostolic witness—both, however, are the result of God’s good intention. He reveals and speaks through the apostolic witness because he is the God who intends to make himself known to people.
It is not about us, our cleverness or our technological accomplishments. We don’t begin with ourselves, our spirituality or our spiritual quest to know the divine.
God is known through his gospel
The whole Bible, in its diverse parts, speaks a unified message. It is only through the gospel, or good news, about the Lord Jesus Christ—God’s promised (covenanted) King by whose death and resurrection he is the appointed one to rescue God’s people from judgment and for a coming kingdom—that we know God. Knowing God, according to the Bible, is specific. We know God according to his terms and according to his purpose.
Paul calls the gospel the word of truth (1:5). It is a word of truth about God’s grace (1:6) and the only means by which believers may have real hope and confidence (1:23). Paul himself stresses this gospel as the central point in his ministry (1:23).
How do we come to know God other than by the means God has chosen? We do not because we could not. This is not to say that within the created order there is no witness to God—there is. The problem with the witness of creation (including humans) is not so much the witness as what we do with this witness. Since the fall humans invert the witness of creation; we end up worshipping creation or the creature rather than the creator. We might point to the splendour of the Alps or to the crystal-blue waters off some Greek island or to the astronomical heavens as compelling witnesses to the reality of God. But these are only witness in part.
God is known through his kindness and gracious mercy
When we ask what the gospel tells us about God we are not wrong to say that amongst all other things the gospel tells us of God’s kindness and gracious mercy – the whole of the Bible tells us this but it is the gospel that fully announces this. Paul writes to the Colossians that God “…has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (1:13-14 see also 2: 11-15).
This is the knowledge of God we need, and for two reasons at least. First, we need the gospel because on our own we have no idea as to the seriousness of human sin and rebellion against the one true God. While we might recognise that something is wrong with us and with human society, we would only come to a partial, if not skewed, diagnosis of the problem. Aberration, alienation, imperfection and wickedness are not our own creations—a construct of our own making—but really do exist and have significance. Moreover, they will be judged by a just judge; the burden of them is not left with us.
The gospel also tells us of God’s kindness. He kindly deals with our rebellion against him in a way that is both just and kind. His Son is our substitute who dies on the cross in our place taking our punishment thus averting God’s just wrath but also demonstrating God’s love. Gracious mercy—that which is the opposite of what we deserve but consonant with who God is—is extended in the gospel. Here is the glory and splendour of the knowledge of God. It is never so much that we know God as it is that he knows us and loves us in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
God is known for a purpose
Paul’s letter to the Colossians is shot through with encouragement linked with a hope (1:5, 23, 27 and 3:1-4). This is a future hope, for such is the nature of hope—it looks confidently towards what is promised. We know God for this hope of the coming kingdom and our complete transformation and the renewal of all things in Christ Jesus.
This hope has an immediate purpose too; we know God for our immediate here and now. Paul prays for the Colossians in 1:9-11: believers are to grow in their knowledge of God. And this is not a detached knowledge but one marked with a spiritual wisdom characterised by a fruitfulness in a full-orbed real life (1:10) that includes a character transformation evidenced in real-life relationships and situations (see 3:5 – 4:1).
The knowledge of God, then, cannot help but lead God’s people to wonder, praise and love—as well as witness and acts of kindness towards others.